Tuesday of the Third Week of Lent | Readings: Daniel 3:25,34-43; Matthew 18:21-35
Our First Reading today from the book of Daniel is from the prayer of one of the three young men in the fiery furnace. He is named Azariah (“God helps”) and surely represents the desperate but fervent praying that would characterize anyone “walking around in the flames of a fiery furnace.” He appeals to God to keep his part of the covenant relationship, with all of the proper humility, confession of sin, and pleading for mercy that might be expected. He asks Yahweh to operate from God’s better, even best instincts, and assures Yahweh that they will do the same and “follow you with our whole heart” from now on. A good prayer that tells us about what we can expect from this God of Israel. They are in the furnace, but “the fire did not touch them or cause them any pain” (3:50).
The theme develops further in this allegorical Gospel story that is found only in Matthew. It is often called “the parable of the unforgiving debtor” which describes it rather well. As with so many parables, the opening question and the closing one-liner reveal the major point. It begins with Peter asking, “How many times must I forgive my brother [or sister]?” and Jesus answers that you must forgive them “seventy times seven!” In the in-between story, the Master is “moved with pity” and has cancelled the entire debt of a servant which would amount to nine million dollars! The parable ends with the invitational one-liner: “Each of you must forgive your brother [or sister] from the heart!” This is what the Master/God has just done.
The greedy and selfish debtor, who is owed a mere fifteen dollars, throttles his fellow servant, ignores his attempts and promises, and throws him into prison (as if that is going to help). And in his attempt to imprison the other, he ends up being “tortured” and imprisoned himself. This is a classic Middle Eastern wisdom story. It is both a gracious statement about what we can always expect from God and an honest warning about how any refusal to forgive actually destroys and imprisons the very one who refuses!
Jesus invites all of us in this rather easy-to-understand story into God’s nonsensical loving “from the heart” which is the final staccato phrase. The connection I make between the two readings is that praying to forgive serious injuries is like praying while burning in a fiery furnace, and if you do not pray to be released from your unforgiving heart, you will indeed keep burning. Sometimes, only God can release you from such a furnace.
“Do not let us be put to shame, but deal with us in your kindness and your great mercy. Deliver us by your wonders, and thus bring glory to your own name.” —Daniel 3:42–43
“Should you not have dealt mercifully with your fellow servant just as I dealt with you?” —Matthew 18:33
“God of Compassion, Mother and Father of all Mercies, do not let us shame ourselves—or the wonder of your name—by living outside of the wondrous loop of your forgiveness and mercy.”